Teaching is Not a Normal Job (Guest Post)
By Barry Lane
I met this guy at the Newark airport years ago. I remember feeling both puzzled and offended by his tee-shirt. Puzzled, because I have never really understood the purpose of retirement and offended, because he appeared to know and was taunting me. I approached him and asked for a photo of his shirt and then I confided in him my bewilderment.
“I don’t really understand what it means to be retired,” I asked with great earnestness.
“What do you do when you are retired?”
He paused a moment and then looked me right in the eye and said,
“I do whatever I want to do, don’t I?”
Yes, of course, that’s it. That’s retirement, and by this definition I have been retired for years now, along with the thousands of dedicated teachers I have met over the years at reading association meetings, like KSRA. There is no other place they want to be, but in the classroom. These are not normal people who work a boring job and relax on the weekends with their family. They are not extrinsically motivated by money or vacations or golden parachutes, (though all bets are off when free picture books are in the equation) . Many work in a profession for far less material reward then they could be getting in other less meaningful jobs. But they have this spark in their eyes and a passion for learning and children that is undeniable. To say they love their job would be an understatement. They don’t even see it as a job. They see it a calling. They see it as a life.
No one really understands this because it is so so abnormal. Like most teachers I know, I cringe when I read anything in the media about what teachers do and who they are. It is always completely wrong because it views teachers through the same warped lens as this guy with the tee-shirt. (Here is Kathy Collins brilliant spoof on this subject.) By corporate America standards teachers are the workforce in the last civilian public, tax funded sector. In a world where many low level jobs have been either automated, off shored or de-skilled (teacher-proofed is the education term), to see teachers as true, engaged, free-thinking professionals is a great threat to those powers who wish to control schools and, (more recently since NCLB and RTT) profit from the steady flow of tax dollars. The full frontal assault on our public schools by the corporate sector through the cleverly designed charter school movement is, at its core, an attack on the teaching profession itself and an attempt to make schools into little companies where you do what the boss (principal) tells you or hit the highway.
I know this from personal experience. One of my close friends taught at a charter school in California. She was by all accounts an extraordinary teacher and both kids and parents loved her and her method of teaching. One day, with no prior warning or discussion, she was fired. When she went to her principal and asked why, the principal went to a file drawer, found her contract and pointed to the clause that stated, “We don’t have to tell you.”
At another school in Oregon an extraordinary teacher at a school was given an award because her students scored the highest in the state on a reading test. When she confided to the Superintendent that she had not used the mandated reading program, he scolded her and told her principal to police her room the next year . She quit.
The saddest result of this ‘coup d’etat ‘ of the business model over schools is that the best , free thinking, teachers are leaving the profession and with them goes the profession itself. Try to be a chef at McDonalds and see how long you last. The shrinking enrollment in the I. L. A. and its state affiliations is the most dramatic example of this rampant de-professionalizing. In it’s heyday, California Reading Association would get 12,000 teachers to their annual conference. This year their conference was cancelled when only 500 signed up. Michigan Reading polled 8000 attendees in the 90”s and now is lucky to get 2000 at their spring conference.
If I were a shallow thinking media pundit I would blame these changes in the defunding of public schools on the recession and the strapped state budgets, but I know for a fact that the lion’s share of educational dollars are now spent on testing, silver bullet, teacher proof, training programs, and the narrowing of curriculum which results from these endeavors.
Last week I worked at a reading association in Northern Michigan and asked two young teachers why new teachers are not joining the organization and coming to their inspiring meetings.
“They don’t get it,” one said. ”Many new teachers think, we do our staff development at school with webinars or in services. Why spend your weekend away from your family when you work so hard all week?’
This was a valid question, I thought, a normal question, a question that the guy with the tee shirt in the airport would surely ask.
For a moment I had a sinking feeling that the new generation of teachers, who grew up as students in test driven classrooms, were now at the helm, aligning their lessons with standards, and keeping the proper records. No spark required.
Then I turned to these teachers, who were also pretty young themselves, and asked them,
“Then, why do YOU come here? Why do you leave your family to attend these meetings?”
They looked at me a bit quizzically, like I might be an alien from another planet, or worse, Anderson Cooper. Then, they wove their arms around each others’ shoulders and beamed two smiles that would light up the darkest school board meeting.
“We ARE family!” was all they said.
While I agree with your comments about the charter schools, I disagree with the “clumping” you have said about the “new generation of teachers” and how they don’t fit the standard “spark in their eyes” that you once saw in all of your teachers.
Schools in general need to be changed to format the themes that are discussed so rampantly in college courses. Differentiation, different modes of intelligence, and inclusion all have similar themes: teaching to the student–not the curriculum. I believe the problems lies in our culture’s ideology of what education is. In the past, education was what one pursued for the sake of knowledge. These days, education is what one pursues for the sake of a job–security. When our curriculums have become so maladjusted that corporations are able to influence a teacher’s job security then something needs to be done.
I vote for creating schools that are centered solely around the students. No more what they should or shouldn’t know. Ask them. I believe they’re smarter than we (and they) believe.
I agree with some of your comments about charter schools. It’s true – there is a lack of protection. However, working for a public charter school, I don’t agree that all charter schools are the same (as all public schools are different as well). I will tell you one thing – some of the folks I work with at my school are every bit as caring and professional as other teachers I’ve worked with at other schools. Been teaching a long time. I have worked at public schools, private schools, charter schools, rec centers, a crisis center, and I still teach at colleges. Teaching, if it’s done right, is teaching.
Love the Dewey quote, by the way. You ought to put that on a t-shirt.
“But they have this spark in their eyes and a passion for learning and children that is undeniable. To say they love their job would be an understatement. They don’t even see it as a job. They see it a calling. They see it as a life.”
I absolutely couldn’t agree more with these statements. It reminds me of the following quote made by Confucius: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Teaching, to me, is my passion: my calling. None of it is work to me because I truly enjoy it. It is my life and will be my life until the day I die.
I also love the story you told about the two young teachers from the reading association in Northern Michigan. When you asked why they leave their family to attend those meetings and responded with, “We ARE family!” is so true to the teaching world. Teachers have a bond that feels like family. Even though I am not officially a teacher yet, I can feel that bond already with fellow classmates pursuing a teaching career as well. Yes, it is true we do not get paid as much as we should. But the money does not speak to me: my passion for teaching does.
I couldn’t agree more with you about how teaching is not a job. Teachers don’t get enough acknowledgement for what they do everyday. They know what is best for their students and don’t always teach to the curriculum which then gets them in trouble. It doesn’t matter if they are “the teacher of the year”. It scares me to read some of the comments in your post because I am in the process of becoming a teacher. The retirement shirt definitely comes off as if they just did their job because and it paid the bills. I will keep this post in mind when an educator in the near future.
Thank you for sharing!
I love the John Dewey quote you pictured! I agree with Dewey that progress can only be made if we question our current times and devise ways to move forward. Technology, medicine, transportation, etc, have all been enriched by those who ask, “How can I make this better/more efficient/safer/stronger/etc?” Education should be treated the same way. Teachers should be able to push ideas in order to find the best ways of teaching students in these current times – we’d be doing them a disservice not to. … I’ve always felt that the education system should model government: just like laws can be amended, so too should teachers be able to change outdated or ineffective modes of teaching. Unfortunately, education has become a business where money, not children, matters most, and the only changes made are ones that are profitable. Teachers have no power, though they are the ones on the front lines, seeing students’ needs firsthand. It makes me angry that forward-thinking, capable teachers are discouraged from adopting strategies they can prove are more effective (just like a teacher you mentioned who proved her reading strategy yielded higher results than the curriculum strategy). As you mentioned, these great teachers feel so stifled that they quit the profession, which is a terrible loss to students. Or they rock the boat and are fired because their version of good teaching does not align with an outdated system.
As you said, teachers aren’t in it for money, they do it because they care. And, at this point in time, the education system is basically saying, “We don’t care that you care. We care that you meet expectations that will get us funding.” … I’m studying to be a teacher. I’ll be honest, when I think about all the bullshit (pardon my language) that teachers face in addition to their actual difficult job of educating students, I get discouraged. I see how daunting a task teaching is and want to give up before I even begin. But then I think along the lines of what Dewey said: I can’t let the system win – I will become a teacher because I have to challenge and change the system in order to progress the profession. I had a professor once tell me that I’ll be a “subversive” teacher. Darn right! I won’t be a cog in a broken, rusty wheel; I’ll try to reinvent the wheel if I believe that’s what I have to do in order to teach effectively! And I hope my peers will join me so, via strength in numbers, we will one day be able to facilitate learning that every student deserves.
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Nicely put, Sam. We really need revolution, not reform. The best teacher voices must be at the core and we must find ways to stop the testing machine and the demeaning consequences.
I love your analysis.
I also want to say that we need teachers of your mindful character. Stay the course and you will thrive.
Thank you for sharing both sides of teachers’ stance toward engaging with the struggles and joys of our profession. Definitely (We ARE family), we need each other to thrive as dedicated teachers and never-retire-from learning professionals.
Never quit. Never quit telling the truth as well.
Barry, thanks for these much-needed words of inspiration. I agree that you never ‘retire’ from what you love.
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We are all joyful retirees doing exactly what we want and what the world needs!